It seems the US and Iran could have come close to war.
President Donald Trump called off an attack on Iran Thursday night, which would’ve been a forceful response to Tehran’s downing of a US military drone earlier that day if the president had followed through.
The two countries have been at odds since Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal last year. But the animosity skyrocketed after the US placed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy and said it had intelligence that Iran planned attacks on Americans. Iran, meanwhile, responded by seemingly bombing oil tankers in a strategic waterway and openly bringing down a US drone.
Trump confirmed he had ordered airstrikes only to call them off at the last minute in a Friday morning tweetstorm. “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” he wrote. “[N]ot proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry.”
But some US officials offer a conflicting account for why the strike was waved off. One official told me that warplanes capable of evading Iran’s air defenses, like the B-2 stealth bomber, weren’t ready during the time picked — early morning in Iran — to avoid as many civilian and military casualties as possible. Another said Trump worried an attack might set off an oil shock and hurt the American economy.
Plus, other media reports offer differing rationales for Trump’s about-face. One from Reuters, citing Iranian sources, details how Trump warned Iran that he’d strike unless Tehran agreed to talks; when it didn’t, he called off the operation.
Still, all of this raises a few questions: How did we get here? What do we actually know about why the US even considered attacking Iran? So it’s worth taking a moment to parse out what we know happened, what we still don’t know, and what it all might mean for the future.
What we know
- Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, leading the US to reimpose sanctions on Iran that Iran desperately wants lifted. That began a new era of US-Iran tensions.
- Those tensions escalated one year later. The US sent an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and 2,500 more troops to the Middle East between May and June 2019 in response to what it said was credible intelligence showing Iran planned to attack Americans in the region.
- Six oil tankers traveling in the Strait of Hormuz — a strategic waterway much of the world’s energy travels through that is aggressively patrolled by Iran — were bombed over the last two months.
- Iran this week said it would stockpile more than 660 pounds of low-enriched uranium, the limit the nuclear deal allows it to have. That means Tehran would no longer abide by the accord the US withdrew from one year earlier.
- Early Thursday morning, Iran shot down an expensive and advanced US military surveillance drone flying near Iran. No one was hurt.
- In response, Trump ordered a limited strike on Iran on Thursday night.
- After authorizing the strike, Trump abruptly called it off.
What we don’t know
- Whether or not Iran was behind the attacks on the oil tankers, although the US blames Tehran. Iran denies any involvement.
- If Iran will actually stop stockpiling more nuclear material, despite its threat to do so.
- Where the US military drone was shot down. The US says it was attacked in international waters, while Iran claims the aircraft entered its airspace.
- If Iran refrained from attacking a US military aircraft carrying 35 people it says was flying alongside the drone, as it claimed on Friday. The US hasn’t confirmed that the drone was accompanied by a manned warplane.
- Why Trump authorized the attack in the first place if, as he claims, he didn’t think the response was “proportionate.” It’s unclear if he was briefed about the potential of killing multiple Iranians before approving the strike.
- Why, exactly, Trump called off the attack. Despite Trump’s explanation on Twitter, US officials tell me that Trump had other concerns, including what an assault would do to the price of oil. Iranian officials also told Reuters on Friday that Trump called off the strike after Tehran relayed it wouldn’t enter into diplomatic talks with Washington over dismantling its nuclear program, among other things.
- What happens next? Will the US carry out an attack later, or was Trump’s reversal a big deescalating signal?